Stop toxic spraying at AIDS grove
by Dan Perdios
There's a different kind of epidemic going on in San Francisco; one that most people aren't even aware of. I certainly wasn't. Which is why I was so taken aback on a July morning in 2015, when my partner and I, along with my Golden Retriever service dog, were walking through Mission Creek Park on our way to my partner's work place.
In the bushes along the bank of Mission Creek was a guy with a spray tank, spraying something on the plants. We watched in shock as he scurried away from the bank and continued spraying in a fenced-off area where the grass had been removed and only soil remained. A group of landscapers stood around the fenced off area laughing and talking as though it were just another day.
My partner asked them what they were spraying and they replied, "Last resort. Last resort." We didn't know what they meant until later when the park site manager emailed us the information that the product was called Aquamaster, a specialized form of Roundup, made by Monsanto. She also sent us a list of the guidelines determined by the San Francisco Department of the Environment Integrated Pest Management program that allowed her to use Roundup as a last resort in removing hard-to-eliminate weeds. "Last resort" being, after all other manual attempts had not been successful in ridding the area of any unwanted vegetation now referred to as pests, using Roundup is then allowed. She told us that if we had any further questions that we should contact Chris Geiger, head of the IPM program.
As a person who has been living with HIV for 38 years I took an immediate interest in this issue. The main ingredient in Roundup is something called glyphosate. It makes up 53.8 percent of the product. It's unknown what the other 46.2 percent of the ingredients are as Monsanto refuses to tell anyone. Even the government. There are some studies that show that these other inert ingredients super charge glyphosate, making it even more deadly to everyone who comes in contact with it, be it plants, wildlife, dogs, or people.
After more research I found that the leading expert on the harmful effect of glyphosate is Carolyn Cox at the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland. This is what she wrote in a March 23, 2015 article: "On Friday, a World Health Organization panel of scientists from 11 countries announced their decision to list glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, as a probable human carcinogen. In particular the panel noted the links between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as a study showing the chemical caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells, another showing increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage in people studied after nearby glyphosate spraying, and several recent animal studies showing evidence of carcinogenity."
San Francisco has one of the largest HIV-positive populations in the United States with an estimated 15,979 people living with HIV. Every day of my life is a struggle to stay as healthy as I can. It's not an easy task. I take a lot of pills to keep this virus at bay and they all have some kind of toxicity and side effects. I have joint pain and chronic fatigue. The last thing my body needs is to be exposed to a deadly herbicide, adding more stress to my immune system. The thought of Roundup being used in Mission Creek Park, a park that I walked through each morning, was infuriating to me. And I knew I had to do something about it to protect myself and my loved ones, including Morgan, my service dog.
Then I read an online story that pesticides are being sprayed in all of the parks in San Francisco. They used Roundup in the National AIDS Memorial Grove for God's sake! When I contacted the management of the AIDS grove they were not outraged to find out that glyphosate was being sprayed there.
Here's their official response: "The grove has long endeavored to be an environmentally sensitive project. For 25 years the grove has been seen as a leader in protecting the environment and being a green project, and we will continue to work with our partners at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to understand the limited use of these products and to explore other non-chemical alternatives when possible."
"When possible." This doesn't sound like a commitment to ban the use of Roundup in our AIDS grove. So the next time you're there to show respect with a quiet moment of reflection, look around. Everywhere you look may have been sprayed with a carcinogenic pesticide. I bet it won't be such a meditative place for you knowing that Rec and Park has poisoned our serene grove.
As a result of the WHO's statement about glyphosate being a probable cancer-causing agent, the state of California declared its intent to list glyphosate as cancer causing under Proposition 65. Of course, Monsanto then sued to keep this from happening. As yet, it is still unresolved.
Then this past December, Geiger, the IPM manager, held a public forum to get feedback on the new guidelines for pesticide use and the exceptions allowed. I attended that meeting and shared that I have been HIV-positive for 38 years and that I worried not only about my health and that of my dog and partner, but also for the children who regularly play right where Roundup was used in Mission Creek Park.
As a result of this forum and public feedback that was decidedly in favor of banning Roundup altogether, an updated set of guidelines were put in place. However, again they leave room for interpretation allowing for the use and abuse of this toxic "most hazardous" chemical. For example, instead of Roundup being prohibited only near schools and playgrounds, it is now prohibited in areas where "contact with children is likely." In my opinion, children are likely to play anywhere in our parks. Therefore, Roundup should be prohibited from use everywhere in our parks.
Nowhere in the new guidelines are the health and welfare of people living with HIV or any other health issue taken into consideration. Nowhere are the lives of pregnant women or the elderly or our pets considered. Geiger will take issue with these statements. But until Roundup is completely banned from our parks, the public's health is still at risk.
For those of us living down in Mission Bay, the management of Mission Bay Parks has now declared that they won't be using Roundup or anything similar in their parks. This is a good thing. Now I can walk my partner to work without worrying that there is poison all around us and in the bushes. But it's just the start. This isn't the only park we go to. We visit the AIDS grove on occasion to pay respect to my former partner, Rick, who died in 1987, and the many, many friends who succumbed to AIDS. This is a sacred place and toxic herbicides like Roundup must never be sprayed there again.
But apparently Geiger is not the only one who thinks it's safe to spray Roundup in our parks. We've contacted Mayor Ed Lee's office several times by phone and emailed and phoned our supervisor, Jane Kim. The mayor's office never got back to us and here's how Kim responded:
"Hi Dan, Thank you for letting us know about this issue. It looks like Nicole (the Mission Bay Parks site manager) has referred you to Chris Geiger, Integrated Pest Management Program Manager at the City, for questions. Please keep us posted and let me know if you need further assistance from our office. Thanks."
Further assistance? They didn't do anything. Further emails and phone calls were never returned. Kim has definitely lost my state Senate vote.
San Francisco is known as a progressive city. We are often at the forefront of social and environmental change. Just recently I got an email from the San Francisco Department of the Environment stating that it was discussing the possibility of phasing out products like Roundup over the next two years. This is unacceptable. They need to stop the use of these toxic carcinogenic pesticides now. It's time for the use of Roundup to be prohibited in San Francisco. Period.
Dan Perdios is a San Francisco Pen Grant award-winning columnist and longtime political activist.